Twenty Years

I’m always laughing about how weird my life is, and my friends and colleagues enjoy whatever wackery abounds in my presence, but let’s be honest: it’s not my life that’s so odd, it’s the world itself. It’s the history I’ve lived, seeing everything change after a few strange events. I’m not that weird, I’m just responding to the absurdity around me.

I grew up in West Germany, surrounded by the remnants of and memorials to the war and the Holocaust. This was in the ’80s, during the Cold War, and we were so very close to the demarcation point. We ventured through Checkpoint Charlie and saw East Berlin; since my father believed he was James Bond, he took 6-year-old me past the “public” parts that were designed for Westerners to see, and we wandered through the parts where real Communism left its scars.

I’m old enough to remember Pan Am 103, the terrorist bombing over Lockerbie. We were supposed to be on that very flight that very day. My father was on holiday leave, and we were originally going to visit his parents in NY. After our plans were made and the flight booked, he decided he couldn’t bear dealing with his mother over Christmas, so we cancelled the second part of the flight. We flew from Frankfurt to London, and stayed in England instead.

I remember Waco, vaguely, and the Oklahoma City Bombing, watching the news and crying. I was a preteen, hormones just starting to kick in, so the tears were intense, and to this day the image of the firefighter carrying the bloody body of that little toddler breaks me in half.

I remember the first time terrorism struck the World Trade Center, the truck bomb in the lower levels in ’93. And as a young adult in college close to D.C., I sat in my friend’s dorm room and saw the second plane hit the tower in 2001. I then had to go downstairs and wake my roommate, whose father was ex-Army, active CIA, and tell her the Pentagon had been attacked. He was supposed to be there that day. Thankfully, he hadn’t yet arrived, and I held her as she wept with relief when she finally got to speak with him late that afternoon.

But with all of these flashbulb “where where you when…” moments I grew up in, the one that impacted me the most and stands out the strongest in my mind is Columbine.

Unpopular opinion: 9/11 didn’t have quite as profound an impact on me, as I grew up on military bases, I understood war and the symbolism of the targets far more easily than I did Columbine. I even remember a few of the school shootings that happened before April 1999, but they were such strange anomalies they never really registered with me. They still don’t. But Columbine… That’s the one that truly shakes me, even now. I never really spoke about how it hit me, because I never had the words. I still don’t have the words, but I’m ready to talk. I need to talk.

I was 16 years old, a junior in high school. Because I was on the east coast, the news didn’t really pick up until school was out, but I remember the initial breaking news reports had started circulating in the halls that afternoon. I didn’t really pay it much mind beyond a mental, “eegh, yikes” kind of thing, but when I got home and saw CNN and Fox airing live in Littleton, the wind was knocked right out of me. There’s absolutely no way to convey the way I felt watching kids my age fleeing their school, hands on their heads, as SWAT teams skulked along the walls behind them. Twenty years later, I still feel my chest go hollow and cold and my eyes well up when I see those images.

That, for me, is the moment the world changed.

(Incedentally, this is also the moment I realized my experiment with Christianity was a failure. I remember standing in the living room, watching that news broadcast, and praying, but realizing I was talking to a void, that the air and my soul were dead and still, and I realized it had been that way since I’d converted at age 13. I missed, in that moment, the constant ebb and flow of energies around me and the connectedness I’d know up until the conversion. This was, oddly, the start of my way back home.)

I didn’t really talk much about it, and at the time, I kind of avoided a lot of the news coverage because it affected me far too strongly. It wasn’t something I could comprehend, which was bizarre considering my upbringing. I grew up with a father who was angry and violent, who terrified me to my core because he was so dangerous. My childhood was spent amidst former SS training camps and buildings that still bore the scars of arial bombings. Most of those years were spent surrounded by soldiers and echoes of screaming ballistics. But, in the true narcissistic immortality of being an American teenager, it wasn’t until I saw kids like me slaughtered by other kids like me, in a kind of building that’s supposed to be a safe place, away from abusive parents and the physical reminders of war and genocide, that I realized how traumatizing the world really is.

The 24-hour news cycle was a very new thing in 1999, and that just made it all the more horrifying. Nonstop loops of the students running, the pictures of kids hiding behind a police car just a few feet from Danny’s body, the 911 audio of Patti’s call from the library that stunned the world with the sounds of whooping and taunting amidst cracks of gunfire. It was everywhere. It was constant. It was hard to avoid, and harder to witness. It affected me, and I hid it. I didn’t know how to process this. I just knew that the world was different, knew it had irrevocably changed even before schools across the country responded with sad measures to protect their own kids. But I didn’t know what to do with that information, much less how to deal with the constant, unrelenting stream of media presenting that information.

Worse than being a witness to the media frenzy was actually being the subject of it. I think, after all this time, the entire thing bothered me so damn much because those kids were my age, and the entire country had watched entranced as they fled for their lives, sobbed in the adjacent park, clung to their parents. This was not a private trauma: these kids and teachers and parents were subjected to an unfathomably horrific slaughter, live, on every news station across the nation. Their terror and pain and blood were splashed across the glassy eyes of millions staring at the spectacle in living rooms coast to coast. And in the days following, they were harassed by reporters, cameras and demands shoved at them, these teens, as they grieved and held one another, trying to wrap their own minds around what had just happened to them, to their friends, to their community. It was all so hideously voyeuristic and unnerving.

In recent years, it’s occurred to me that the morbid fascination I had/have with serial killers was my way of trying to make sense of the killers at Columbine. I majored in Psychology with a concentration in abnormal psych, intending to become Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. I wanted to study killers, understand them so I could hunt them and stop them from their reigns of terror and destruction. Serial killers were easy to study; the vast majority of them, the most notorious, were almost historical, and it felt so much safer reading about them than it was to learn about e and d, who were my generation, my age, my recent memory. They were too scary to read about. To this day, I avoid pictures of them and exposure to their videos. I just can’t bear the sight of them. They frighten me more than Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. I remain so haunted and deeply disturbed by how they tormented and terrorized their classmates in the library. The way they wandered around the hellscape of a school for just over half an hour, trying to detonate the bombs in the cafeteria as kids and teachers huddled in locked classrooms, deafened by the nonstop shrieks of the fire alarms, waiting for death to darken the doorways. The unnerving realization that the police and responders waited so long to enter the building and secure it because they were following a protocol that didn’t come close to applying to this kind of nightmare. The heartbroken thought of the bodies of 12 kids lying in dried pools of their own blood for nearly 2 days before they were finally brought out of that terror-soaked place. That those dead children spent all of that time lying in perfect stillness just a few feet from the remains of their murderers while their parents wept just outside the police perimeter. That all of this was broadcast in real time to every house in North America.

Since we’ve recently marked 20 years since the massacre, I’ve once again delved into the steady consumption of documentaries, articles, and discussions about that day and its aftermath. There has been a new crop of retrospectives with the survivors, and I’ve devoured everything I can about where they are now, how the families of the victims have fared. My heart shattered for them in 1999, and it swells now with hope and pride at how far they’ve come. Five of the survivors actually teach at Columbine now. It’s absolutely remarkable and beautiful that they’re there for the next generation of kids, kids they used to be like, in those same halls, in the same building with the same green windows.

I don’t know that I could ever be so strong.

Over the years, I’ve dipped into periods in which I consume everything I can about Columbine, minus the videos made by the killers. The rise of internet and the conclusion of the investigation has made it easy to research. I’ve read the bulk of the 11k, and I’ve read the journals of the killers and of Wayne Harris. I’ve watched Sue Klebod’s talks and interviews, and I’ve focused on the stories of the survivors and the tributes to the victims. I’m still trying to make sense of the event and all of the factors leading up to it. I understand serial killers far better than I do e and d. The only thing I understand about Columbine is that it changed America. It tore the soft-focus illusion of safety away from the cameras and forced us to see the terror and grief in vivid color. And we saw it all. We bore witness, live action, whether we wanted to or not.

And still.

And still people look for something to blame while failing to destigmatize mental health care, without making such care available. Music, movies, and video games are still so much easier to blame and address than mental health. For as much as that day changed the world, nothing has really changed, and that’s the root of the horror for me. Those boys were depressed, they were suicidal, and instead of being helped, they found an echo chamber in each other.

And the rest is history.

When it comes down to it, for us lucky folks who weren’t actually in Columbine High School on 20 April 1999, that event is just a piece of history now. Nothing really changed. Kids in high school now might have heard about it, learned about it, but they never knew what the world or what school was like before that day. It’s a curiosity. But for many, that day was a day of demarcation: life before Columbine, and life after Columbine. I wasn’t there. I am so, so fortunate to have never been in a mass shooting situation. I don’t know any of the victims, I don’t know any of the survivors. I can’t pretend to imagine what it’s like for them. But, though I was thousands of miles away, merely a spectator to the news feeds, it’s an event that changed me, and my view of the world, and the horror of the event is still inexplicably raw. I still don’t know how to really discuss it, or articulate the way it affected me, why it still clings to me, why I still research it and read about it, why I still remember the 13 and the survivors. I still don’t understand why at all. And because I don’t understand the why, I don’t know how to help ensure it doesn’t happen again. But it keeps happening, over and over, and I just have this absurd notion that if I can understand Columbine, I can do something to protect others.

“This is why you should never hate,” my mom said to me when I was a tiny little kindergartener crouched on the cobblestones – the Jewish gravestones – paving the street in Bad Bruchenau. “This is what hate makes people do.”

I grew up surrounded by violence and the reminders of extraordinary horrors. Of all of the horrors, every destructive, dehumanizing act bred of hate that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, none have clung to me the way Columbine has. All of these things, all of those lives lost: this is what hate makes people do.

I just don’t know what to do. I guess the first thing is to talk.

I’m ready to listen.

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